The West Wrangles with Renewable Energy

{ November 30th, 2011 }

by Martin LaMonica November 28, 2011 4:00 AM PST

ALAMOSA, Colo.–The San Luis Valley in southern Colorado is an ideal location for capturing solar energy. But like so many communities, people of this mountain basin will only embrace a future of renewable energy if it fits comfortable with its past.

One of six counties in this high-desert valley surrounded by majestic mountains, Alamosa officials are eager to develop solar for much-needed revenue and to diversify the economy. The county welcomed a group of journalists earlier this month as part of a fellowship organized by the Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources.

Even with a fabulous solar resource with an average of 340 days a year of sunshine, the county is finding that adopting solar technology is complicated in a place steeped in generations of farming and ranching. It’s a story that’s playing out in many communities drawn by the potential of renewable energy but unsure on how best to move forward.

Water is high on the list of concerns in Alamosa. Agriculture is the economic and social backbone of the valley, which produces high-value products such as barley for Coors beer, hay for cattle, and vegetables. Any solar technology that competes with agriculture products for water is certain to see opposition. “It is our economy,” said Steve Vandiver, the general manager of the Rio Grade Water Conservation District, adding that the area sees six inches of precipitation a year. “If all that goes away, we have nothing left.” So far, three solar farms have been developed and a fourth using novel concentrating photovoltaic technology, financed in part by a Department of Energy loan guarantee, is now in construction. Each project is using solar photovoltaics, an approach that requires very little water compared with steam-producing concentrating solar thermal technology.

Community activists, meanwhile, are wary of any development that transforms the valley into an industrial zone. At least one project, which would have placed 6,000 large solar dishes on a wetland, was blocked by local activists concerned about the size and noise of a proposed plant. “People would like there to be good solar development here, but we really want it to be good. And we know once a bad plant is built, the bar will be so low that we’ll have a lot of bad plants,” said rancher Julie Sullivan, who fought a project that would have placed on an adjacent property. “That’s why people are trying to stay on top of it.” Compared with its neighbors, Colorado is relatively far along in renewable energy. The state has a mandate to produce 30 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. Although it has excellent resources, New Mexico has about one-third (PDF) the renewable energy production as Colorado.

But as is often the case, transmission lines are the current bottleneck to any further solar development in the San Luis basin, according to Alamosa County Commissioner Darius Allen. The county would like to export energy outside the valley, but its current infrastructure means it’s tapped out for the foreseeable future. A transmission line proposal from utility Xcel Energy, reportedly opposed by a wealthy landowner, was recently stopped. To some extent, people in the San Luis Valley are being forced into changing their way of life. A shortage of water over the past several years led area officials to devise a plan to remove an estimated 40,000 acres from agricultural use in Alamosa County and as much as 15 percent of farm land from the whole valley this decade.

Each time that a farmer retires a plot of land normally used to grow potatoes, it’s the equivalent of removing about $6 million from the local economy, said Allen. Even though finished solar plants don’t employ many people and the path toward more development isn’t totally clear, solar at least offers the prospect local economic development, he said. “If we start losing that much land, how are we going to back-fill some of that?” Allen said. “With the solar development, I think it’s able to come in here and back-fill some of our needs in the future.”

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